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Wof Washa – A Land of Milk & Honey … and much more.

View from of Rift Valley edge near Gosh Meda

Wof Washa (meaning Bird Cave) forest blankets over 6,000 ha of the Rift Valley escarpment with natural forest. A mere 130km north east from Addis Ababa this forest extends from Ankober, seat of Menelik former palace, towards Debre Sina. At the highest levels (around 3,500 meters above seas level) the forest consists of Afro alpine vegetation of Giant Lobelia and Giant Heather trees (Erica arboreal). As you go lower increasingly there are massive Juniper, African Olive and Podocarpus trees. Some of these trees are over 500

Podocarpus & African Olive trees among the giant trees in the forest

years old. I have never seen such large Olive trees. There are many other species too, but I’m no expert. I saw Hagenia (Kosso) and the yellow flowered Hypericum in the forest but there was much I didn’t recognise.

With the changing altitude was a variety wildlife. Above the escarpment was Guassa grassland with little rodents scuttling into burrows before us and large troops of Geladas. Reliable reports indicate that Ethiopian wolves can be seen here too best seen early morning and late afternoon. Fortunately at one such location: Gosh Meda ( Buffalo grassland – but no Buffalo’s left these days!),

Gosh Meda guesthouse near the top of the Rift Valley escarpment

SUNARMA have supported the local villagers to build guest houses. The views from the escarpment here at an altitude approaching 3,600 m are stunning. But the wind and altitude can combine to make it very cold. None the less this is a great place to see the Afro Alpine flora and fauna with out having to travel far from Addis. The great raptors such as the Lammergeyer patrol the escarpments on thermals in search of rodents or Hyrax (which look like overgrown guinea pigs) large troops of Gelada graze on the grasses, and if you are lucky you could see an Ethiopian wolf.

Hagenia Abyssinica & Giant Juniper trees in the upper forest

There is a good path down from here past the villages developed spring water source (a great place to top up water bottles) into the forest. As you drop down in altitude Juniper and other relatively lower altitude trees appear. In addition to the trees you will notice a myriad of different coloured flowers, butterflies and birds. Anyone with an interest in plants will be fascinated and be scrabbling for their notebooks. The regular rain with the varied altitude make this one of the best places to see flowers and different plants.

In terms of mammals, in my few days I’ saw Geladas

Mescha guesthouse nestled into the forest edge

and Colobus, heard Hamadras baboon, saw trees moved most likely by Grivet monkeys, seen prints of leopards, heard hyenas, seen tree hyrax, seen excrement we were told was from what is either a Cerval or Civet (both are present), heard and seen Menelik’s bushbuck and seen porcupine quills. Wow!

The walk to the bottom of the forest ends in Mescha. Surely one of the most scenic places you can imagine. Jagged forested peaks ring Mescha on three sides. Low level fields were full of crops of barley and a kind of

The vale of Mescha on the lower edge of the forest

broad bean called bakela. Water gurgles by in streams. Another quite different village guesthouse awaits. It’s a place you never want to leave.

The name Mescha comes from an event in 1701 (Ethiopian calendar) during a famine. After praying Mana came down from heaven to feed the hungry population around the historical church of Mescha Mariam. This led to the naming of the area as Mescha meaning ‘comes down’ as the Mana did in the time of Moses.

Next morning I was woken up with the serenade of the

Kniphofia Foliosa – Red Hot Pokers – found throughout the forest in clearings

Colobus (Guraza as they are called in Ethiopia) a kind of rumbling roaring that is unexpected if you never heard it before. Shortly after we went on a forest walk south from the guesthouse with the hugely knowledgable camp manager. The highlight was seeing a number of scarlet winged, White-cheeked Turacos.

After breakfast we walked west around the valley to see the Thursday market in Mescha village. We walked through carpets of red hot pokers in the clearing and through attractive farmland. Milk production is very successful in this area, with all year round green fields,

Farmhouse near Mescha

and the crops looked very healthy. But as we neared Mescha we noticed biscuit and sweet rappers on the trail. We stopped at the school to discuss environmental issues and how to handle tourists with the young school director. Hopefully kids will greet visitors without begging (not that any were begging) and Mescha can now be the cleanest town in North Shoa (or at least do better than before) as dropping rubbish is something no one gives a second thought to. In the market we bought tasty little oranges from the lowlands which were being sold along with a smattering of vegetables and other materials. We sampled the local araki in a bar and had a

The market at Mescha, just below Wof Washa forest

superb cup of coffee before continuing on our way.

The trek to Lik Marifya took about 4h30minutes, and went through lovely scenery, mostly following the contours around the edge of the forest and the higher agricultural land. One of my companions went off in search of honey and came back with delicious unprocessed honey as scraped out of a traditional hive. Honey is one of the important forest products that is sold locally. But much of it is used for making tej, a local honey wine (mead). Also on the trail we stopped to watch a pair of Verreaux Eagles being attacked by crows. As the afternoon wore on we climbed up a steep

Cutting hay and the view back towards Mescha

pass to get to the Lik Marifya valley. The views each way from the top were stunning, as was the descent into a forest of giant Olive trees. The biggest I had ever seen. Again the guesthouse is set on the forest edge with views out to the agricultural land below the forest and into the densely forested slopes adjacent to the lodge. We had spent the whole day on the go, and arrived shortly before sunset.

Next morning we went off down the valley to the Falasha monastery. The Falasha are an ancient Jewish people who have lived in Ethiopia since time

Forest of African Olive on slopes above Lik Marefya

immemorial. However there are very few left now as since the 1980’s Israel has ‘repatriated’ them to live in Israel. This community have however refused to leave. Intrigued, I set off down the dirt road spotting Colobus monkeys and White-cheeked Turacos along the way. After about an hour’s walk we came to the grinding mill owned by the Falasha. It was given by donation and they had just received a new mill the day before from the latest donor. We were received into the main compound and into a building – a 2 story mud and wood building, very simple and spartan inside. We

The forest & valley in early morning – Lik Marefya

discussed with two strong but older men from the ‘monastery’ one who was their leader. The most curious point was that they said they were Orthodox Christians and believed in Jesus. They claimed to have converted many centuries before, but claimed their ancestors travelled with Menelik I (son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba) and presumably the Ark of Covenant from Israel. However later they confessed to not really knowing their history as it went so far back. In addition on our way out I observed that there was a curious large round building at the centre of the compound with a

round design on the roof – which was not a cross. The

Falasha ‘monastery’ near Lik Marefya

women’s compound was to one side and the mens to the other. This would seem to suggest the round building was in fact their synagog. No married people lived in the compound, but rather married Falasha couples lived outside in other parts of N.Shoa. The population at the monastery consisted of ageing Falashas and some with disabilities. They employed local people to be their labour force.

We tried to discuss future tourist visits which they seemed happy to accommodate, and I suggested that

Colobus monkeys in the trees over a river

they sell some of the crafts that their community produce. But it seems little is produced at the monastery, although their associated population do produce artisanal goods (pottery and cotton shawls). However the leader firmly believed that monastery would need a donation to make this work!

We had by then spent all morning with the Falasha and so trekked back up the valley and climbed up to the top of the escarpment. It was a lovely but gruelling walk which took us some 3h30min virtually without a stop.

Lik Marefya guesthouse nestled in the forest

However the walk up from Lik Marefya to the top between Ankober and Kundi would take about 4h30m at a more leisurely pace with stops. As we were short of time we then got a lift along the top to within 1km of the Kundi guesthouse. By now it was set in the cloud, with Geladas grazing all around. After a look around the new guesthouse, I left Getachew in charge of the cook training and drove back to Debre Berhan and on to Addis. This was somewhere I would come back to as often as I could.

We are now able to arrange tours in the forest saying at the community guesthouses. To really appreciate the place I would recommend at least 4 nights with one night in each guesthouse, and if possible perhaps 2 nights in Mescha. The cost per person per night for a group is about $63 USD p/p, excluding transport and bottled drinks.

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Peace and Stability return to Ethiopia – no reason not to visit

Empty roads in Ethiopia (Photo Andy Bottomer)

Empty roads in Ethiopia (Photo Andy Bottomer)

Since the State of Emergency was imposed at the start of last month, there has been no violence, protest, strikes nor anything that should put off any tourists. Now the tourism industry is waiting with growing impatience for the embassies to revise their unwarrented negative travel advise which hinders some visitors getting proper travel insurance for their travels.

But it is not just the peace across the county, there are other positive signs for the future of the country and for tourism.

All eyes have been on the government since the declaration of the State of Emergency to see if their promised reforms start to take shape. And indeed this week the government have taken the first steps thereby increasing the chances of long term peace and stability for Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Primeminister Hailemariam

Ethiopian Primeminister Hailemariam

This week Ethiopia’s Prime Minister: Hailemariam Desalegn, announced a major reshuffle of his cabinet ministers as a first measure to bring about changes needed to address the issues flagged up by the disturbances and protests across the country over the last few months.

Parliament unanimously approved the new 30 cabinet ministers proposed by the Prime Minister of whom 15 are new ministers. The Ethnic balance has been addressed too, with more Oromo and Amhara ministers coming in and the number of Tigrayan ministers being cut back. More importantly however is that many appointees have technical knowledge or genuine experience in the fields to which they are appointed. The PM said that appointments were made on the basis of competence rather than party loyalty. In addition five of the new ministers are not party members, which is a clear break from past practice.

In another move that shows that tensions are reducing, the defence minister Siraj Fegessa announced that about 2,000 people detained for taking part in recent anti-government protests had been released.

The PM announced that travel restrictions that have required the diplomatic community to get permission for diplomats to move more than 40 km from the capital will be lifted soon, which will have an positive effect on tourism and movement within the country and we hope will lead to foreign Embassies getting rid of the unnecessary negative travel advise that is leading to both tourists cancelling their trips and a down turn in new tourist bookings.

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Ethiopian Update – should we visit Ethiopia at this time

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Me with the community at Mequat Mariam guesthouse

Many of our clients are asking if they should visit Ethiopia at this time, and what is happening in the country?

Some facts:

The Government of Ethiopia declared a State of Emergency on 8th October as a response to a surge in violence across certain parts of the Oromo region. The violence itself was a response to the deaths of a large number  of people at a large traditional Oromo festival in Bishoftu (Debre Zeit), an Oromo town some 40km south east of Addis Ababa, in which people were killed in a stampede following attempts by security forces to stop political demonstrations.

What does the State of Emergency mean?  It is not Martial Law, there are not tanks on the streets, and life looks much as it did before. The government has taken increased powers to control the unrest and restore law and order. They have now powers to stop and search, check houses and so on. This has not affected tourists, and can only increase security.

The internet is working, but social media is not!

Some Social Media is currently blocked in Ethiopia. Facebook, You Tube and Whats Ap for example are not working. [Please note we are not using the Tesfa Tours Facebook site – contact us by email].

The 3G internet service on mobile devises is also closed thereby stopping access to the internet by phones where there is no wifi. However places with internet wires (broad band) coming in still get a reasonable service, and many hotels have some wifi working. Just don’t rely on it, in fact your trip to Ethiopia could be an internet ‘Detox’ trip.

Events in the north of Ethiopia in August and September:

In late August trouble flared up in Gondar, Bahir Dar and towns around that area (such as Debre Markos and Debark) there were protests, road blocks and attacks on properties.  Within a week this was ended and roads re-opened.   Since early September the only protests have been ‘stay at home’ strikes whereby businesses closed and transport stopped. This only happened in Bahir Dar and Gondar, and seems to have fizzled out now.

Where is safe to visit?

Giyorgis Church in Lalibela,

Giyorgis Church in Lalibela,

Most of the north of Ethiopia is now safe. However the eastern side of Amhara Region – including Lalibela stayed peaceful and quiet throughout this time. Tourists are now visiting Bahir Dar and Gondar, and trekking in the Simiens without any problems. There has been no reason for tourists to stay away from Lalibela at all, Tigray is also calm and peaceful, with no violence. So Axum and the Gheralta area can be visited. The Tesfa community areas of North Wollo (around Lalibela) and E.Tigray (around Adigrat ) are also perfectly safe.

In the south the events in Oromiya were worrying and there is a need to be careful on any road trips across the region, in case there is any flare up of the violence. The Bale Mountain National Park, is itself safe to visit however it would be advisable to wait for some weeks to see if things will remain peaceful before embarking on road trips south from Addis.

The Omo Valley has been untouched along with Arba Minch, so trips there are also fine. There were disturbances in Konso (just south of Arba Minch) but it is peaceful again there.

Harar and Dire Dawa have been peaceful, although there were some disturbances on the road between, but that is now calm.

Danakil depression has been untouched by recent event, and tourists continue to visit daily. It is an area to which the British and other governments advise against travel, but it is as safe today as it was a year ago.

Will my insurance be valid if I visit?

Check your insurance policy to be sure. Most British insurance companies defer to the British FCO travel advise, and currently the whole of Amhara region and chunks of Oromiya carry the advise not to travel there unless essential.  However we are optimistic that the blanket advise for Amhara will be revised and become more specific in the coming weeks.

Is it right to visit Ethiopia at this time?

Anne and her friends with a community in Tigray

Anne and her friends with a community in Tigray

Many people benefit from your visit to Ethiopia. And these people need their income. In places like Lalibela thousands of local people earn their salary or get an income linked to tourism. And these people need their jobs. In the mountains where the Tesfa communities provide stunning walking opportunities the farmers need the additional income that your visit brings. Lodges across the country employ local staff and buy where they can local produce. If these places do not get enough tourists visiting this year it is ordinary people’s lives that will suffer. When you visit you will be greeted by happy welcoming faces. All of our guides, drives and the communities that host you really want you to come!

Let Tesfa Tours help design a holiday that will positively impact on local people and put money into their hands, while giving you a holiday you will treasure.

 

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Should I visit Ethiopia while there is a drought?

As various agencies are reporting a drought in Ethiopia and the horn of Africa, with million Ethiopians in need of emergency assistance, I thought it could be useful to answer some of the questions people frequently ask us.

Is there drought all over Ethiopia?

No it is mainly in areas to the east of the country – lowland pastoralist areas for the most part.

Is there food available in Ethiopia?

YES. Ethiopia produces grows many crops and has a vast number of livestock. Food is available.

The real hardship is caused by the economic effect of drought. Those suffering from the loss of agricultural production and loss of livestock are unable to afford to buy food from the market. It may well be that there is food around in the country, but it has to be paid for and those with nothing to sell have no means to buy anything.

What will it be like in the Tesfa Trekking areas?

In Tigray and North Wollo there has been good rain this year. Some of the trekking areas plant a crop with a rain called the Belge (or short rains)t hat typically falls between February and April. This year the Belge was good (it is intermittent rain over the months). The main rains – called the Kremt have started across the north of the country (including the areas around Addis) and predictions seem quite good, although there are predictions of floods.

How can one part of Ethiopia suffer drought and another receive rains?

Ethiopia is a vast country with a high plateau in the north west with Africa’s highest agricultural lands, and lowlands to the north east reaching below sea level. The south east is continuous with Somalia and has the Somali climate not the highland Ethiopian one, and the south west runs into northern Kenya and South Sudan and has a more similar climate to those countries near the Ethiopian border, although the highlands continue far to the west and in parts to the south.

If some parts of Ethiopia have a good harvest can food be transferred to areas of drought?

In fact this is done by a number of agencies. They buy food from surplus areas for distribution in areas facing a shortage. However help is still needed to do this. The food is bought from poor farmers (through market networks) who need to receive payment. The Ethiopian government can not underwrite these costs so foreign support is needed – hence the appeals that are made by the World Food Programme and others.

Should I still come and visit Ethiopia?

YES! You will have a wonderful trip in the north, and you will be spending your money with local Ethiopians, supporting them and their families. Your trip is important to the country’s economy and to the well-being of the communities with whom you spend your time. You will not be faced with images of famine and drought, but in fact of a thriving rural economy in highland Ethiopia.

I hope this helps put the tragic news of suffering in perspective. It is not meant to belittle the problems in the south and east of Ethiopia, but to help people understand the size and complexity of Ethiopia, and to realise that coming here will be a positive move for the visitor and the host.

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